In a season full of lucky breaks, the Vancouver Canucks had another good omen Friday when injured centre Manny Malhotra was cleared for contact.
That is an important step for Malhotra, who was nearly blinded by an eye injury suffered on March 16, and could lead to a surprising comeback in the Stanley Cup final, which begins Wednesday with the Canucks facing the Eastern Conference champion at Rogers Arena. Malhotra underwent two surgeries to save the vision in his left eye, and his ability to win faceoffs, kill penalties and check the other team's best offensive players could prove valuable in the best-of-seven series for the NHL championship.
Given the cascade of good fortune for the Canucks this year, a Malhotra return would be par for the course, another sign that Vancouver is a team of destiny.
"Sometimes you think that the hockey gods are smiling on you, and you take it and run with it," said assistant coach Newell Brown, who won a Cup with the 2007 Anaheim Ducks. "Every team that wins it, you're getting a break along the way, and you feel that there's some destiny on your side."
That may be true, and there is the adage about making your own luck through hard work, but there have been so many good turns for the Canucks this season. Consider:
-Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks. The Canucks are in position to tie the game only because the on-ice officials make a mistake. They fail to notice the puck deflecting off Daniel Sedin as San Jose's Dan Boyle ices it in the final seconds. The Canucks get a fortunate faceoff in the offensive zone, and Ryan Kesler scores with 13.2 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. If one of four officials notices the deflection, the Sharks would have survived into a Game 6 on home ice.
-In the second extra session of Game 5 comes perhaps the strangest bounce in the history of Rogers Arena. It leads to the winning goal. Alexander Edler shoots the puck along the boards and it bounces off a stanchion to the right-handed stick of Kevin Bieksa. The Canucks' defenceman notches the series-clinching goal after shooting the puck past Sharks goalie Antti Niemi, who along with almost everyone in the arena (players included), has lost sight of the puck. Bieksa, incidentally, was on the trading block last summer until the Canucks reconsidered and decided to retain him, rationalizing that you cannot have enough quality defencemen if your aim is to win a Cup.
- The Canucks win the conference final 17 years to the day after their last win in the third round, which also came in double overtime. Prior to Bieksa, there was Greg (Gus) Adams, who scored in double overtime to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 24, 1994.
- It is an inexplicable coincidence, but prior to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver-Whistler, the last two Canadian cities to play host to the Games witnessed their NHL teams win the Cup the following season. The Calgary Flames triumphed in 1989, while the Montreal Canadiens raised the mug in 1977. Destiny, apparently, shines on Olympic cities.
- Defenceman Sami Salo ruptures his Achilles tendon while playing floor hockey in his native Finland last summer. The major injury requires surgery, and it has ended many an athletic career. But it allows the Canucks to place Salo on long-term injured reserve, which provides salary-cap relief at precisely the right moment. Rather than having to shed salary prior to the start of the regular season, the Canucks fit all their NHL-calibre defencemen under the spending limit of $59.4-million (U.S.). The team's enviable depth on defence is secured because of Salo's injury.
- Edler wrenches a chronically bad back and requires surgery in late January. The surgery involves a two-month recovery period and, right on schedule, Edler returns to the lineup with two regular-season games remaining, in time for the playoffs. If his back had given away two weeks later, the Canucks would have had to play the Chicago Blackhawks without one of their best defencemen.
- Outside Vancouver, general manager Mike Gillis's acquisitions of forwards Chris Higgins and Maxim Lapierre at the trade deadline make no waves. They are viewed as minor moves to secure depth, but both players have proved invaluable. Higgins has three game-winning goals in the playoffs, while Lapierre has done an outstanding job replacing Malhotra.